I observed an IELTS preparation class last week and the teacher was talking with her students about paraphrasing when doing their writing assignments. She discussed the use of a thesaurus in helping students find synonyms to expand their vocabulary. Following the lesson, the teacher and I were discussing the use of a web-based thesaurus and I told her that I regularly use MacmillanDictionary.com in class as my favourite online dictionary and thesaurus.
After that conversation, I decided to investigate further to see if there were any other online thesauri that might be useful in the English language classroom. A quick search for thesaurus in Google came up with an unbelievable amount of thesauri, but after an hour or so of checking out the variety of options, I came to this conclusion: there are a lot of really poorly designed websites out there. Pop-up and display ads, poor layout, and complicated usage made most of them completely useless for my classroom. My search had verified that I had the correct decision from the beginning and felt secure in continuing my use of MacmillanDictionary.com as my main online dictionary and thesaurus for my classroom.
For those of you not familiar with the site, here are some of the main features.
Simple layout: Macmillan has developed a really nice landing page that makes it easy for any level of learner to use. The search box is easily located in the centre of the page and has a tab for the dictionary (default tab) and the thesaurus. At the very top of the page is a single menu bar with drop-down options. Directly below the search bar are three boxes with links to the main features of the site. Further down the page are more detailed write-ups on how to make use of the site.
Simple usage: When you start typing a word in the search box, a number of suggested words begin to appear below. This is extremely helpful for students who may have heard a word, but are unable to spell it. It also suggests related words and phrases such as phrasal verbs and compound adjectives. A search brings up a results page that shows the search box near the top of the page and the word in red directly below it. To the right of the word are as many as five red stars to indicate how common that word according to their corpi. Directly below that, it tells you what word type it is such as noun, adjective, verb, etc. It also has a link to take you to the definition of the word. There is also a box giving related entries in the thesaurus for that word. The next section gives a numbered list of definitions for the word and related synonyms. There is a red “more” link at the bottom of each list of synonyms which takes you to a page showing those same synonyms with one-line definitions. Back on the main search page, there is a list of common phrases using that the main word and possible related phrases that could be a replacement.
Simple sharing: At the bottom of the page, there is a listing of all of the popular social media sites where students could share their new found knowledge with others, including those they are working with on an assignment. I have had students share it on a classroom Del.icio.us or Google Bookmarks classroom page so the rest of their classmates can learn along with them.
There is a lot more to this site than a dictionary and thesaurus. There is also an open dictionary where users can add their own words to a separate dictionary, much like a controlled Urban Dictionary. There is a word-of-the-day page, clickable words within the definition, and ways of integrating the dictionary into your own website. All of this is for free with minimal advertisements.
Give it a try, I think you will find that this is a great site for helping English language students develop their personal lexis and pronunciation skills.